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The Art
of Writing

A new gallery program at Carnegie Museum of Art is giving high school English students a reason to write.

High school students enrolled in the Art & Writing gallery program draw inspiration from works in the museum’s permanent collection for stories they’ll write when they return to the classroom.
























“The fact that students extracted such different ideas from the same works of art made them more open-minded and accepting of different viewpoints. They ultimately learned that there’s more than one way to look at something.”
- Kathleen Antonazzo, Language Arts Teacher, Saints Peter and Paul School






Remember the grammar drills and formulaic essays of high school English? If you were one of many students who dreaded the hour spent in English class, you might find Carnegie Museum of Art’s new approach to learning English inspiring. Art & Writing, the new 90-minute gallery program, uses firsthand encounters with art to inspire creative writing. Developed in collaboration with educators and docents from Carnegie Museum of Art and English teachers from Bethel Park High School and launched at the start of the 2005 school season, it has teachers talking. And students writing.

“ If you’ve ever experienced writer’s block, this program is the ultimate cure,” Leigh Ann Totty told her class of creative writing students at Bethel Park High School. “You’ll find endless characters, settings, and plots just waiting to enter your stories.”

To Totty and other English teachers in the western Pennsylvania region, the museum’s program is a dream come true. Not only does it make writing less intimidating and more fun than the expository writing exercises that dominate the English curriculum, it also gives students something authentic to write about.

Says Carnegie Museum of Art’s Curator of Education Marilyn Russell: “Art is something about which students can form an opinion and develop a response. It’s full of deeply held beliefs that inspire genuine questions about life and the human experience. Students need these things to become good writers. They need to have something to say.”

Like other school tours offered by Carnegie Museum of Art, Art & Writing encourages students to look closely at art while sharing ideas about what they see. Unlike other tours, Art & Writing has less to do with historical context and more to do with imagination.

Encouraged to put aside factual information they know about the art, museum docents prod students to use their imaginations to create story ideas inspired by what they see.

“ Let’s look at the young girl in the painting, the one holding the books,” says docent Merle Culley to a group of eighth graders standing in front of the painting Morning on the Cape (1935) by American artist Leon Kroll. “What’s going through her mind?”

“ I think she’s sad because she doesn’t want to leave the farm. She doesn’t want to go to school,” one student says.

“ No way,” someone else interjects. “I think she’s bored with the farm. Just look at her face. She looks like she’s dreaming of a life far away, a life in a big city, maybe. Her fancy clothes don’t fit in with the farm.”

“ I’m not so sure,” a student from the back row says. “To me, she’s not really bored with the farm or sad to leave it. She’s dreaming of her future. Maybe she’s in love with a boy who left for the war, and she’s imagining life when he returns. She’s looking at the pregnant lady, so maybe she’s dreaming of having her own baby.”

In a discussion that sounds more introspective than one might expect from eighth graders, the students offset each other’s ideas with visual evidence from the painting, much like a detective at a crime scene. The young girl’s glance away from the farm indicates a plan of escape, not a sign of contentment. Her well-groomed hair and collared shirt suggest wealth, not poverty. And the two people in the background, positioned in close proximity to the farm, represent an old way of life soon to be replaced by modernization.

These insights, which students share out loud and jot down in journals, form the basis of narrative stories completed back in the classroom. Stories range from Medieval and modern romances to snippets of daily life, complex dramas, and works of historical fiction.

According to Kathleen Antonazzo, a language arts teacher at Saints Peter and Paul School, Art & Writing inspired such a wide range of stories that it became not just a lesson in writing but also a lesson in tolerance of multiple perspectives. “The fact that students extracted such different ideas from the same works of art made them more open-minded and accepting of different viewpoints. They ultimately learned that there’s more than one way to look at something.”

While Art & Writing provides a breath of fresh air for English teachers and students, it also supports the educational objectives of schools, which prioritize writing as an essential part of learning in all academic subjects.

“ To the extent that we can be of service to the needs of teachers and students, we want to do as much as we can to help,” Russell explains. “With galleries full of original art from distant time periods and places, the museum is a perfect place for enhancing exactly what schools need to develop—speaking and writing skills, critical thinking, reasoning, creativity, and tolerance.”

From the thoughtful observations articulated in the galleries to the polished stories produced in the classroom, Art & Writing offers a fresh approach that makes students eager to write. “Kids are your toughest critic,” says Freedom Area High School teacher Susan Rigotti. “The fact that Art & Writing held my students’ attention speaks volumes about the program.” And it keeps them writing volumes, too.

Teachers interested in learning more about innovative techniques to help make their students better communicators can participate in an Art & Writing workshop at Carnegie Museum of Art on July 26. For information call 412.622.3288 or visit

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